What a whopping meal. The platter could barely contain it all. There were two large pieces of steak, cut long and thin in the Mexican fashion; cheese-topped beans with wonderful flavor and red rice that included an assortment of vegetables. On one end was a generous patch of shredded lettuce topped with two big tomato slices, sour cream and pale, soft guacamole sauce. Tucked under the steak was a full-size serving of French fries. And there was still more: a basket heaped with chips, a helping of soft, warm flour tortillas and a big bowl of salsa crammed with chunks of avocado.
It was all wonderful. It was certainly not nouvelle, because the servings were large and everything ran into everything else. And it was certainly not pricey. The tab was $5.50 for this carne asada meal at Ciro's, a Mexican restaurant in Boyle Heights.
This 15-year-old, family-owned eatery is far from fancy. Paneled walls decorated with beer ads, rudimentary furnishings and vinyl upholstery that, in my booth, was split, give an air of rustic make-do. But what it does, it does so well that there is usually a line for seats, and the line extends outside because there is so little room within.
Toward the front of the line is the window where orders are relayed to the cooks and where the food is set out for pickup. When you reach this point, you can look inside to a tiny vestibule occupied mainly by a grill and a range filled with bubbling pots. And you witness what amounts to a live menu as Ciro's specialties pass from kitchen to customers.
The carne asada goes by quite frequently. So do the flautas (flutes), the slender tortilla rolls in which Ciro's specializes. Prepared Ciro's style, flautas are really taquitos-- corn tortillas rolled around shredded beef, fried crisp and served with guacamole and sour cream. The flautas are advertised across the top of the menu, a plateful of food for $3.75. A half order of three flautas, rice and beans is only $2.75 and enough for the average appetite. That kind of pricing guarantees lines.
Ciro's is one restaurant where the combination plate is one of the better offerings. The enchilada is coated with sauce but not drowned in a flood that engulfs everything else. The relleno is made with a fresh chile. And the taco is crisp and light. Each leans against its partners but maintains its identity in this thoroughly satisfying platter of food.
Diced tomatoes spill in a heap from the fat, cheese-dusted tacos, showing the attention paid to freshness. Steak picado is also strong on fresh vegetables--lightly cooked tomato, big squares of onion, hot green chile and green pepper. What wasn't so fresh was the meat, some of which had been overcooked to the point of hard chewiness. But the serving was so large that it was possible to zero in on the tender pieces for a more than ample helping.
The chile verde (beef in green chile sauce) tasted homemade--and that is meant as a compliment. The chile colorado (pork in red chile sauce) had superb flavor but an overabundance of fat clinging to the meat, which is a turnoff in this health-conscious age.
Dishes that looked wonderful as they came to other tables or sat at the pickup counter were the piled-high tostadas, the tortas (sandwiches) and the burritos. Bowls of cocido brim full of meat and corn were inviting, too.
Checking the pots on the range one day, I saw a simmering mixture of tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and, in the center, a blob of tomato paste. This was the start of the sauce for huevos rancheros, and it looked so appetizing that I went back one morning to try the dish, receiving a platter of food so generous that it eliminated the need for lunch.
Ciro's, 705 N. Evergreen Ave., Los Angeles (Boyle Heights), (213) 269-5104. Open Tuesday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday through Sunday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Monday. Cash only. Street parking.